Practice makes perfect except when it doesn’t.

My mother often said I had a hard time seeing the world the way it was instead of the way I wanted it to be. But I might not be a writer if I didn’t.

He'll get better if he practices.

So, I’ve been writing a story a day for the month of May. This exercise isn’t going to get me published in the world the way it is. It would be nice, however, if it made me a better writer.

But how will I know? Practice can stretch muscles and improve us. Right? You can’t run a marathon if you’ve never tried to run around a block. I’ve been going to a gym for last few months (exercising for the first time since 10th grade) and I can do more reverse push-ups than when I started.

Sometimes, we think we’re practicing, but we’re just repeating. I have students who practice their English a lot. Unfortunately they keep practicing their mistakes.

How do you know you’re becoming a better writer? It isn’t like the ability to press 20 lbs instead of 5. Or the ability to pass a grammar exam.

Is this writing exercise useful? Where’s the proof?

16 thoughts on “Practice makes perfect except when it doesn’t.

  1. I love that title! 😀

    I’ve noticed an improvement in Darc’s writing over the last year or so, and in Sherri’s too. It’s probably not something you’d be able to judge yourself, like a kid who’s always wondering if they’ve grown in the night. You can’t really see the progress until the clothes become too small.

    So keep stretching. Just because you may not see progress right away doesn’t mean the seed hasn’t been planted, and like that seed, your growth is taking place in the dark quiet of the soil. 🙂

  2. I just spent 45 minutes trying to answer this, and it’s come down to, “I don’t know.” Qualitative versus quantitative measurement is a key difference between, say, physics (a science) and psychology (arguably, a socially accepted form of Voodoo). “Is what I wrote today better than what I wrote yesterday?” can only be answered in any useful sense if we have a way to weigh those writings.

    It would be nice to have an accurate ‘scale’, say, maybe someone in the publishing business with a sharp sense of what a standardized “good” means. I guess that’s what the formal editing process is all about. But until we write something good enough to attract the attention of such a godlike creature, we’re pretty much on our own.

    Is that such a bad thing though? We know what we like. We can tell when we read good material and when we read garbage, even if the difference is purely subjective. I think the trick is to follow our feelings. If one paragraph, one sentence, one word disturbs the flow of something we’ve written, then — on editing — it’s time to sort out why, and figure out how to not do that again.

    Meh. Twenty minutes later, and I’m still thinking I should have stuck with “I don’t know.”

    1. I don’t know either. But you’re onto something here–the measurable and unmeasurable. When I read something I’ve written and I come to that word that disrupts the flow, I rewrite. Then I second guess. Do I even know flow when I see it? It is crazy-making.

  3. I hate questions like “How do you know you’re a better writer?” because, well, I don’t know that. I’m pretty sure I’m better than I was 10, 15, 20 years ago — but am I better than I was in 2008? or before putting the previous book’s MS away in the virtual drawer? Beats me.

    A couple of hops and skips from a random entry in Google Reader, earlier today, led me to a blog called Conscience Round. Of course, I know to take with a grain of salt any stranger’s claim, over the Internet, to be N years old. But still, the thought that she might really be only 16 years old does make me wonder what the hell I’m doing trying to write anything, let alone claiming to be a “writer.”

    Some of your mood of the past few days may have penetrated my own mind. It’s like, who can think about the difficulties of getting published — and paid for it? Isn’t it challenge enough to somehow justify merely putting words on the page at all?

    1. A dagger to my heart for my mood getting anywhere near your thinking. Don’t let that happen again. Unless I’m in a crazy good mood of course.

      Okay, so let’s say this 16 year old is a great writer making you question what you’re doing. Where the blazes do you go from there if you’re 16? Early brilliance is not always a good thing. That’s how I sleep at night anyway. Trying to justify my slow learning and lack of tangible success at my age. Or something absurd. It is late and I’ve had a rough day.

  4. I guess I’ll toss my hat in with the others of the “I dunno” camp. How can you tell? How do you know if you’ve corrected mistakes, strengthened prose, chosen better words (and wtf with that anyway?), etc.? How can a writer know, like John said, whether they’re better than a year or two ago? With older work, comparison will tell the story. For me, I can tell by the strength of editing and revision I make. When I could only see a word or two to remove then and now I’m slicing out entire passages, chapters, book sections? Yeah, there’s been growth.

    But in the microterm? Hm. That’s tough.

    All I’ve ever heard is “write! write! write!” when I asked how to become a better writer. Read, and write. But like you, if all I do is write my weaknesses into ruts, am I getting better?

    Great question.

    1. “Weaknesses into ruts.” Yes. Exactly. I worry about this. And I don’t know. I don’t bloody know.

      I think I’m just going to go to bed now and try not to think about it.

  5. I think you know if your writing is getting better through the distance of time. I am much more objective about writing I did a year ago than the writing I’m doing now. I can see a trajectory of improvement. But the trajectory isn’t straight. It’s up and down like waves. Three crappy stories that repeat the same mistakes over and over and then one that is clearly better than the best that came before. But that one wouldn’t have been written so well if I hadn’t made those mistakes but kept trying.

    1. Time is an important factor. But I think I don’t know how to look at my own work. Today or next year, I stare at my work and can’t be sure of what I’m seeing. What if I think something is good and it is total rubbish?

  6. Sarah

    I agree with Squirrel- it’s about getting some distance from the work first, then re-reading. It might require a few days, a few months, a year or more- but the progress (or lack thereof) will be more easily seen.

  7. I’ve spent the past eight years trying to change my personality. I know I haven’t reached the place I wanted to, and perhaps I never will. It would be hard for me to see any change at all if it weren’t for others who remark on it and cause me to say, “Yes, I think you’re right.”

    Writing is very similar. You can’t measure it, so it’s hard to see an improvement in your own writing.

    1. It is hard to see in ourselves and hard to know who to listen to. I have favorite writers (of course). I read reviews of their work. One review will love this writer. Another review will trash this writer. And this writer may be quite successful in the marketplace or not. But there is that sticky word of good. Which reviewer is right? Is the market right?

      And then there are those books that get published that lots of people say are rubbish. Well, they got published, didn’t they? Agents and publishers make it sound as if your book must be so fantastic to get their attention, but if that is always the case, why are bad books published? And if bad books can get published, and if my books isn’t really bad, then what is wrong with me?

      All right. I’m dizzy now. Thanks for reading as always, Miriam.

      And by the way, you seem to have a very nice personality now.

  8. I have stumbled onto writers’ blogs by a route I can’t recall, much less describe. I’ve never published, nor do I want to try. I can’t imagine writing for result; I only know that I come up with the good thing now and again when I’ve forgotten myself entirely. Often, I’m surprised when someone calls a phrase I’ve penned, “Good writing.” For a couple of days after a compliment like that, I wind up relying heavily on…a sure sign that I’ve plugged up my voice, stoppered my thought process, and begun writing for result. To hell with that, then.

    I am all admiration for your efforts. I’m pretty sure I’d wind up trying to write authentically about trying to write authentically. I’m not a writer. I just say things.

    1. Yes, the good thing now and again does seem to come more easily when I’ve forgotten myself. When anyone tells me anything good about my writing, I don’t go to a thesaurus, but I do worry about what they’ll think later. Letting go of that worry helps the writing too.

      You may not have to call yourself a writer to be one. When I call myself a writer I’m sure I’ll be called out for a fraud or a fool.

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